Meet the canine officers guarding American agriculture


DULLES, Va. – As a crowd of travelers at Dulles International Airport made their way to the baggage carousel on a recent sweltering afternoon, a federal officer zeroed in on a weary woman, sniffed her suitcases and sat down.

Hair-E, a six-year veteran of Dulles and a honey-colored beagle, glanced knowingly at his human handler, Don Polliard.

“Do you have any meat, vegetables or fresh fruit in this bag? Polliard, an agriculture specialist for Customs and Border Protection, asked the passenger.

Yes, she conceded reluctantly. Contraband, just as Hair-E suspected. As Polliard instructed the traveler and her husband to take their many bags and go through a second round of inspections, Hair-E walked over to a red plastic bag at a carousel, already following the lure of the next fragrance. .

As part of the government’s Beagle Brigade, Hair-E is one of 180 dogs deployed at airports, border crossings and postal depots across the country. Dressed in blue vests emblazoned with government logos, they roam airport hallways to detect and intercept prohibited foods or plants that could carry disease and wreak economic and ecological havoc on American agriculture. And with international travel returning to pre-pandemic levels, Hair-E and his colleagues are seizing increasing numbers of goods banned from entering US soil.

Typical recruits are young lifeguards who complete up to 13 weeks of training at a center in Atlanta, where they learn to discern five basic smells: apple, citrus, mango, pork and beef. Their time in the field naturally broadens their olfactory repertoire. About three-quarters of dogs graduate from the program and are then placed at entry points. After a few years of service, the members of the brigade retire around the age of 9 or 10, when they are often adopted by their handlers.

Modest in size, friendly in nature, and renowned for their sense of smell, Beagles are favored for patrolling baggage carousels while larger breeds like Labradors sniff out docks and cargo facilities.

“Beagles aren’t usually intimidating at all, and people are usually quite happy to see them,” said Sara Milbrandt, regional canine agricultural adviser for Customs and Border Protection, who worked as a handler for 15 years.

Of course, few travelers are thrilled when their carefully hidden delights are unearthed, even if detection comes with a stir. But neither the dogs nor their masters steal the confiscated food. Instead, beagles are given a treat — a stick of pepperoni or a small milk bone, for example — for discovery, while their owners are bound by Department of Agriculture regulations.

“When you take their $900 prosciutto ham that they bought that they were sure they could bring, I get why we’re not their favorite person, but I promise you we’re not taking it to the back room to eat,” said Christopher Brewer, agriculture branch chief of Customs and Border Protection for Washington-area airports.

“The dog is one of the layers of defense to prevent the introduction of something harmful to agriculture,” he added.

This damage could be catastrophic.

Currently, the Department of Agriculture is prioritizing the detection of African swine fever, a highly contagious and deadly disease not yet present in the United States that risks being transmitted through smuggled pork sausages and deli meats. from abroad.

Another threat is the Mediterranean fruit fly, a species of fruit fly considered one of the world’s most dangerous pests and often found in tropical vegetables and fruits like mangoes, contraband frequently tucked away in the carry-on luggage of travelers from South Asia in May and June.

On a recent Friday, Hair-E and Phillip, a member of the Golden-Eyed Brigade for two years, patrolled an arrival bay bustling with European backpackers, bringing together families and passengers returning from the hajj picking up cans of holy water in oversized luggage. claim.

Always motivated employees, beagles prefer that: each carousel stuffed with luggage to sniff.

“They really, really like to work,” Milbrandt said. “You can probably tell just by looking at them.”

The Beagle Brigade confiscated more than 96,000 items in the first nine months of fiscal year 2022 and is on track to exceed the number of seizures made in the previous two years of the pandemic – around 102,000 per year. In Dulles, outside of Washington, Hair-E is the fastest and one of the most industrious dogs at the airport, intercepting 12 to 18 prohibited items a day like bushmeat, fresh mangoes and homemade products, according to Josue Ledezma, an agricultural canine supervisor. .

When international flights all but came to a standstill at the height of the pandemic, keeping the dogs motivated was a challenge, their handlers said. Without a constant stream of suitcases to sniff and contraband to spot, the five beagles stationed in Dulles were tasked with discovering food hidden in vehicles to keep the memory of mangoes and fresh pork in their noses.

Some scents are more seductive than others. Hair-E drools when he identifies meat. Phillip loves the smell of bananas.

Some are the ghost smells of a sandwich or an apple eaten long before landing, as dogs can detect residual odors from food that is no longer present in a traveler’s bag.

And still others are so strong even trainers can smell it, like Phillip’s latest jackpot: a suitcase filled with 22 pounds of raw beef and 33 pounds of raw, smoked goat meat. But Valérie Woo, his mistress, is sensitive to temptation, even if it is her job to guard against it.

“Some of the passengers are from food insecure countries or it’s their first international trip and they want to pack everything,” she said. “For others, it’s a piece of home.”

Brewer cited a recent example: a large open-and-closed tin can labeled “coffee.”

“We were sure they had drugs – clearly it’s not coffee,” he said. “It turned out that they were homemade sausages. Grandma made them.

Asked to rank the canine officers he worked with, Polliard declined. “They’re all good dogs,” he replied.

As officers recounted their experiences, Phillip rolled on the ground, assaulting for the camera, his colleagues and a reporter gathered around him – “a queen of total drama”, as Woo put it – before giving a sudden alert.

His nose twitched as he felt something in the air again.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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